Friday, June 28, 2013

G. K. Chesterton, Edmund Bacon, and Philadelphia's Late, Lamented "Gentlemen's Agreement"

G. K. Chesterton
(image@www.missionstclare.com)
Edmund Bacon
(image@www.time.com)























The Philadelphia Skyline as it appeared in 1940
(linen postcard dated 11 May 1941, from the author's personal collection)




Philadelphia is different in many respects from all other major American cities. It is also, in my opinion, better than all of them—or, at least, it is superior when it is content to stay true to itself rather than succumb to envy caused by its location smack dab in the middle between New York City and Washington, DC or, less understandably, to the economically booming-yet-sterile cities of America's growing sunbelt communities. Philadelphia looks different, thinks differently, and, at least historically, has acted differently from its peers. And that, in my way of thinking, is a good thing.

Ninety-one years ago the great English polymath G. K. Chesterton was similarly impressed by Philadelphia, then America's third-largest city, which (along with Boston and Baltimore) he compared favorably to its massive neighbor 90 miles to the northeast:

In the same way I hear some New Yorkers refer to Philadelphia and Baltimore as 'dead towns.' They mean by a dead town a town that has had the impudence not to die. Such people are astonished to find an ancient thing alive ... And what I mean by Philadelphia and Baltimore being alive is precisely what these people mean by their being dead; it is continuity; it is the presence of the life first breathed into them and of the purpose of their being; it is the benediction of the founders of the colonies and the fathers of the republic. This tradition is truly to be called life; for life alone can link the past and the future. It merely means that as what was done yesterday makes some difference to-day, so what is done to-day will make some difference tomorrow. In New York it is difficult to feel that any day will make any difference. These moderns only die daily without power to rise from the dead. But I can truly claim that in coming to some of these more stable cities of the States I felt something quite sincerely of that historic emotion which is satisfied in the eternal cities of the Mediterranean. I felt in America what many Americans suppose can only be felt in Europe. I have seldom had that sentiment stirred more simply and directly than when I saw from afar off, above that vast grey labyrinth of Philadelphia, great Penn upon his pinnacle like the graven figure of a god who had fashioned a new world ...
Needless to say, the modern vulgarity of avarice and advertisement sprawls all over Philadelphia or Boston; but so it does over Winchester or Canterbury. But most people know that there is something else to be found in Canterbury or Winchester; many people know that it is rather more interesting; and some people know that Alfred can still walk in Winchester and that St. Thomas at Canterbury was killed but did not die. It is at least as possible for a Philadelphian to feel the presence of Penn and Franklin as for an Englishman to see the ghosts of Alfred and of Becket. Tradition does not mean a dead town; it does not mean that the living are dead but that the dead are alive. It means that it still matters what Penn did two hundred years ago or what Franklin did a hundred years ago; I never could feel in New York that it mattered what anybody did an hour ago. (What I Saw in America, 69-70).
For Chesterton, it was John McArthur, Jr.'s great City Hall, with Alexander Milne Calder's statue of city founder William Penn perched at the summit of its tower, that symbolized what made Philadelphia special, more European in its sensibilities than New York or the newer cities to the west and south. And Chesterton, ever the astute observer, was, as usual, spot-on in his assessment. When completed in 1901, City Hall, at 548', was the tallest occupied building in the world, and remains to this day the highest masonry building on earth. The exquisite jumble of columns and statuary on its French Second Empire facade must be seen to be believed; and, in contrast to showy newer architecture that seeks to impress with size and flash alone, the solidity of City Hall's granite, marble, and limestone succeeds in causing one's appreciation for its charms to grow with repeated sightings. Indeed, as a child growing up in Philadelphia, City Hall fascinated me like no other building, holding my rapt attention whenever my family would drive down the Ben Franklin Parkway or, even better, east on Vine Street where one could at that time get an uninterrupted view of the tower as one crossed Broad Street a few blocks to its north.

City Hall and environs, late 1940s, with PSFS building to the left
and the PNB building immediately to the right
(linen postcard from the author's personal collection)
City Hall as seen from North
Broad Street, 1906
(postcard from author's
personal collection)


Philadelphia Skyline viewed from the southwest, 1949
(linen postcard from the author's personal collection)






















As much as the architecture, however, it is the symbolism of Calder's statue of Penn, facing northeast to the Fishtown park where the great Quaker made his treaty with the aboriginal population of the area, that provides a clue to Philadelphia's unique character. In the popular imagination, Philadelphia is the city of the fictional Kensington pugilist Rocky Balboa: a faded post-industrial blue-collar city whose denizens weigh too much due to their consumption of cheesesteaks, Italian hoagies, and roast pork sandwiches, and who vent their frustration with hostility, directed not only toward supporters of other city's sports teams, but toward their own athletes as well. To more refined observers, Philly is home to the world-famous Philadelphia Orchestra, was the home base of such jazz icons as John Coltrane and Clifford Brown, painters such as Charles Willson Peale, Mary Cassatt, Thomas Eakins, and Andrew Wyeth, architects such as Frank Furness and Louis Kahn, such acting legends as the Barrymores and Grace Kelly, and has one of the country's finest Art Museums, a grand yellow limestone neoclassical temple on a hill overlooking Center City. For others, Benjamin Franklin provides the public face of the town, at least to the millions of tourists who flock to Olde City and Society Hill to recapture a bit of Revolutionary-era magic: Franklin the go-getter, the statesman, the inventor, the printer, the founder of the venerable University of Pennsylvania and the nation's first hospital. There is some truth in all of these, of course. But, I would argue, it is Penn, the reserved Quaker gentleman, who best explains the ethos of the town he founded back in October of 1682. It is Penn, and his fellow Quakers who originally settled here, who ultimately explain the city's innate modesty and conservatism (social, not political, of course), its pathological inability to promote itself, its instinctive loathing of superficiality and glitz (that is why the Dallas Cowboys, not the New York Giants, are the most hated team in town), its resistance to change, and, I suspect, the characteristic pessimism that has bred a host of "Negadelphians" like yours truly. But, as Chesterton accurately noted, the most salient characteristic of Philadelphia's historic character is a respect for history and tradition that approaches reverence.

Nowhere was this respect for the city's venerable history manifest more than in the famous "gentlemen's agreement" which for decades left the City of Brotherly Love with a uniquely squat skyline, at least as measured by American standards for a city of its size. According to this informal agreement, no architect would design, and no developer would build, any building surpassing the tip of Penn's hat atop City Hall. In my youth, only two buildings—Howe and Lescaze's 1932 International Style masterpiece, the PSFS Tower (492') and John Windrim's likewise splendid 1932 Art Deco Lincoln-Liberty Building (aka PNB, One South Broad; 472')—even approached City Hall's height. Moreover, when the skyline was viewed from the northwest down the Ben Franklin Parkway, the (somewhat) tall PSFS and PNB buildings nicely framed City Hall, giving the panorama an appealing visual symmetry.


The origins of this famous "gentlemen's agreement" are murky. In an informative post this week on The Philly History Blog, Ken Finkel suggests that it was Philadelphia's eminent City Planner, Edmund Bacon (the father of actor Kevin Bacon, by the way), who, if not necessarily the agreement's creator, certainly enforced it in the 1950s and 60s as a matter of honor in order to maintain the city's historical continuity with its past.


Indeed, it was the development of Penn Center in the 50s, 60s, and 70s after the (unfortunate) demolition of the Pennsylvania Railroad's Broad Street Station that served to exert the most pressure on the informal agreement. One by one, squat, banal modernist boxes rose around City Hall and along West Market Street: 1700 Market (IVB; 430' [1968]), Five Penn Center (Central Penn National Bank; 490' [1970]), One Meridian Plaza (492' [1972; destroyed by fire, 1991; demolished 1999), 2000 Market Street (435' [1973]), Centre Square I and II (417' and 490' [1973]); 1818 Market (500' [1974]); and, finally, the execrable, black glass-clad PNC Bank Building (491' [1983]). As a result, the Philadelphia in which I lived at 1701 Arch Street between 1974 and 1978 had a flat, uniform and, frankly, boring skyline running for approximately 6 full blocks down Market Street west of City Hall.

Not only had Philadelphia replaced one of the world's great railway stations with a landscape every bit as sterile as the most stereotypical Sunbelt city (all in the name of removing the "blight" caused by the viaduct emanating from the station's train shed), in effect it had transformed its physical appearance in a way inappropriate to its historic character. Not surprisingly, the natives got restless, and an increasing number of voices called for lifting the informal height limit. One such voice was that of Philip Klein, vice-chairman of the Philadelphia Planning Commission, quoted by Finkel: “It’s time Philadelphia did something like [topping William Penn]. I’d fight for it all the way. No city can be a big city without tall buildings.” [Of course, somebody could have pointed Klein to the classic counterexample provided by Washington, DC, but dollar signs and economic concerns have a way of clouding the judgment of most civic officials.] Finally, by 1984, when the voices of people great and small afflicted with short building syndrome had reached a fevered pitch, the city finally gave in to the dark side and gave approval to developer Willard Rouse III to construct two Helmut Jahn-designed skyscrapers, both far taller than City Hall, on the block bounded by Market and Chestnut and 16th and 17th Streets. The first phase of the development was completed in 1987 with the opening of One Liberty Place, a 61-story, spired tower topping out at 945', almost exactly 400' feet taller than City Hall Tower. As of now, a total of eight skyscrapers now surpass Billy Penn's hat in height, including the memory stick-shaped, 975' tall Comcast Center at 17th Street and John F. Kennedy Blvd, completed in 2008.

After 26 years, enough time has passed to reflect on the wisdom of the fateful decision to rescind the informal "gentleman's decision." Most, no doubt, particularly those for whom a showy skyline is the mark of urban prestige, if not vitality, would say that the decision was a wise one. At least a number of the new towers are architecturally worthy, at least by the diminished standards of post-World War II architecture. Two such buildings are the pyramid-topped, 792' BNY Mellon Center (1990) and the 739', red granite clad former Bell Atlantic Tower (1991).

Others, however, demur. One such voice is that of New York-based architecture critic Francis Marrone, who dubs these buildings "Ungentlemanly Towers" and writes: "I don't think it matters if the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building had been put there. Some vital part of the city's soul—one of the last things that made Philadelphia better than other American cities—was forever lost in the reckless decision to allow this skyward development" (An Architectural Guidebook to Philadelphia (161-62). Marrone, I believe, is right. Too many people gave in to their native civic inferiority complex (another of Penn's legacies) and hoped that emulation of more "fashionable" American cities would confer chic to their staid, time-worn metropolis. In doing so, they sacrificed the city's soul, and the results were no more beneficial than the mess of pottage Esau gained by trading his birthright. Little did anyone consider the suggestion that it wasn't the height limitation, but the unimaginative and boring architecture of the post-war construction boom that had reduced Penn Center and Market West to a barren, sterile wasteland devoid of foot traffic and, indeed, any signs of civilization after hours and on weekends.

Nostalgia, however, ultimately doesn't do any good. That is, it doesn't do any good unless one learns from the inevitable mistakes that one has made. Fortunately for Philadelphia, despite mistakes that can be counted in the thousands, it still has a built environment that, more or less, reflects its uniqueness among American cities. Here's to hoping that the powers that be value their unique heritage and pass it on for future generations.


I leave you with a number of pictures of the city both before and after the gentlemen's agreement was rescinded.




City Hall, May 1983
(photo by author)
Boxy skyline as viewed from west bank of Schuylkill River, June 1983
(photo by author)







Iconic view of skyline from Belmont Plateau, Fairmount Park, October 1984
(photo by author)




View from Belmont Plateau, October 1997. Note how City Hall is dwarfed by the new kids on the block
(photo by author)





Skyline from steps of Philadelphia Museum of Art, 28 August 2010.
Note the asymmetry caused by the new towers
(photo by author)





City Hall, 11 August 2007
(photo by author)




Skyline as seen from Boathouse Row, 2 September 2008
(photo by author)





Skyline as seen from the top of the PSFS Building, 27 January 2013
(photo by author)





Billy Penn contemplating the indignity of being supplanted in height
by the Comcast Center, 27 January 2013
(photo by author)





City Hall with the Mellon Center in the distance, 30 June 2012
(photo by author)






City Hall and its original supplanter, One Liberty Place, 30 June 2012
(photo by author)




The best of the "Ungentlemanly Towers," the Bell Atlantic Building,
5 October 2011 (photo by author)




One Liberty Place, 5 October 2011
(photo by author)




Comcast Center, 26 November 2011
(photo by author)




Comcast Center, 26 November 2011
(photo by author)




City Hall and Comcast Center, 14 March 2012
(photo by author)









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